Can anyone stop Al Jazeera?

It will be interesting to see how BSkyB copes with Al Jazeera's threat to broadcast Premier League games in Europe
By Ed Attwood
Sun 08 Apr 2012 10:51 AM

Many of you may remember sitting down to watch the opening game of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa two years ago. After hours of build-up, the opening match between the hosts and Mexico kicked off, only for fans to cry foul when screens across the Middle East suddenly went blank.

For broadcaster Al Jazeera, which bought the screening rights for the World Cup across the Arab world for an unnamed sum, the event was something of a public relations disaster. As ‘helplines’ went unanswered, the broadcaster limply blamed outside interference for jamming its signal.

It is to be hoped that Al Jazeera has learnt its World Cup lesson. Qatar, the country that has funded the network, has been spending billions in buying up trophy assets, and it’s a trend that some believe that Al Jazeera is set to follow, especially via a potential move to screen English Premier League (EPL) games across Europe.

It’s a move that won’t come cheap. Back in 2009, BSkyB paid £1.6bn to host five of the six live packages, with the final package going to Irish broadcaster Setanta, which promptly went bust due to the fact it didn’t show enough matches involving the big-name teams.

It will be interesting to see how BSkyB copes with the real or potential threat of Al Jazeera. The largest pay-TV broadcaster in the UK — and a heavyweight performer on the London Stock Exchange — BSkyB has had a tough twelve months. NewsCorp, the Rupert Murdoch-owned media giant that owns a controlling stake in BSkyB, has lost much of its lustre after the phone-tapping scandal involving a tabloid newspaper in the UK.

And last week, James Murdoch quit as chairman of the broadcaster, after admitting that his presence at the top of the firm could be seen as a ‘lightning rod’, given the newspaper scandal and the resulting regulatory scrutiny into BSkyB’s broadcast licence.

BSkyB will be desperate not to lose its coveted football rights. It has held them since the Premier League began, in 1992, and both organisations have benefitted immensely in the intervening two decades.

Needless to say, the Premier League, for which the phrase money-grabbing might have been invented, would be more than happy to see Al Jazeera enter a bidding war that could send the value of its rights sky-high.

“Ultimately whatever umbilical cord there might be as an ongoing working commercial relationship gets severed as the invitation to tender gets issued,” Premier League chief Richard Scudamore told Bloomberg earlier this year. “Once we’re in the process, there’s nothing [Sky] can do other than being the best bidder to win those rights.”

But European rights aren’t the only area of interest for Al Jazeera. As interest in the world’s most popular sport grows in the planet’s biggest TV market, the Qatar-based network is making inroads into the US.

In March, the channel confirmed that it was rebranding its American sports network to beIN Sport, which has already won TV and internet rights to show football from the top leagues in Spain, Italy and France, and is rumoured to be looking at English Premier League rights to complete the set.

So what’s next? Football rights may be big business in Europe, but they hardly scratch the surface of the amount the US networks are paying to show the National Football League (NFL) on free-to-air.

The £1.6bn (or $2.5bn by today’s exchange rate) BSkyB paid to show the EPL for three years pales into comparison next to the $6bn that the NFL receives every year for television and internet rights.

As Al Jazeera embarks on its plan to roll out its news coverage across the US this year, it may well consider trying to buy rights to screen the sports that Americans hold dearest. Such a move would be fraught with difficulty, but Qatar has the ambition and the money to push the envelope as far as it can. Stranger things have happened.

Ed Attwood is the Editor of Arabian Business.

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